A joint report published by Resolution and LawCare has highlighted an overwhelming need for employers to tackle wellbeing issues faced by professionals in the family law industry. The report which surveyed more than 1,200 industry professionals has uncovered the effects of high workloads and pressures specific to the family justice industry on individuals, in both the short and long term, and before and since the advent of Covid-19, finding that 89% have experienced negative wellbeing as a result of their work.
Chris Minnoch, Chief Executive of Legal Aid Practitioners Group commented on the report’s findings:
“this is such an important initiative from Resolution, at such a critical time for the profession. The report makes sobering reading and the findings reinforce our own view that more needs to be done to support legal professionals. It is also clear from the report, and from our own recent research on wellbeing, that while the profession is moving forward there is still more to be done to foster a cultural change and a positive focus on mental health and wellbeing.”
The report highlights some stark statistics, stating that 40% of respondents have seen a negative impact on their physical health, with 30% experiencing problems with family life or relationships. Most concerning of all, as many as 5% have experienced suicidal thoughts or self-harm during the past 12 months because of work-related pressures and stress.
One case study detailed in the report discusses the struggles faced by Georgia, a Barrister from the West Midlands:
“[the pressures of pupillage] felt like living in a fish bowl, being scrutinised constantly and having to second-guess how you’re being perceived … it brought every vulnerability and self- doubt to the forefront and was a very anxiety-inducing time for me. What makes it harder is feeling too scared to speak up, for fear of looking weak. Many people suffer in silence.”
“I’d been struggling with anxiety and depression as a result of both personal and work pressures. In December 2019, I was suicidal and attempted to take my own life. I returned to work just before Christmas when I’d recovered physically but looking back, I can see this was too soon. However, I was too afraid of taking any more time off work during my pupillage. I didn’t tell anybody about my mental illness, only that I had been unwell.”
“… within the profession as a whole, there still appears to be a stigma and judgement around mental illness, like it’s a sign of weakness.”
Although awareness of wellbeing has grown in recent years, the report found that 43% of respondents still feel uncomfortable talking to their employer or workplaces about work-related stress or pressures. For a sector that spends so much time listening to clients’ personal problems, family law professionals are surprisingly reluctant to discuss their own with employers: 54% say they would feel uncomfortable discussing personal problems, with only 24% feeling comfortable doing so.
Physical health is easier to talk about however, with nearly 49% feeling no discomfort about discussing these issues with their employers. But mental health remains the taboo it has always been. Asked how they would feel discussing their mental health, less than a quarter (23%) said they would feel comfortable – 25% said uncomfortable, while 31% said very uncomfortable.
Overwhelmingly, the report found that professionals want their employers or workplaces to encourage a good work-life balance, as part of supporting wellbeing. The changes they see as most important are flexible working hours and support from senior management. The formal responses they want also include access to counselling, the introduction of a wellbeing policy, and appropriate supervision.
Additionally almost 68% of respondents want to see the introduction of training, to help them support team members experiencing wellbeing issues. Nearly as many (67%) would like to see a wellbeing toolkit for employers/workplaces. This is followed closely (60%) by a wellbeing helpline. While there are many resources that are readily available to employers such as the confidential helpline and guide to creating a mentally healthy workspace provided by LawCare, and wellbeing training classes run by Resolution, it appears that many employers simply aren’t utilising or adopting available resources to help their employees, either because they aren’t aware of such resources or because wellbeing is not a subject that is high on the agenda for many firms.
Juliet Harvey, National Chair of Resolution outlined the steps that firms can take:
“in my own firm, Birketts, we have taken steps to improve our team’s wellbeing, including providing apps that offer mood tracking and personalised resources; guided meditation sessions; webinars on health and nutrition; and supervision training to provide additional, tailored support in-house. Above all there is a culture of watching out for one another, checking in on each other to make sure that we are all OK. I believe that the challenges of the last year have made us closer and stronger as a team.”
While the statistics and case studies highlighted in the Resolution report are worrying, and there is an undoubted requirement for employers to do more for the wellbeing of their employees in some cases, it is worth remembering that there are resources and strategies to hand to help employers and employees alike.
Solicitor, Charlotte Purves agrees, recently writing about her own experiences and coping strategies, she commented that:
“whatever it is that an individual or their firm decides to do to promote mental wellbeing, the most important thing to remember is that our minds matter, and failure to look after them can have real and tangible consequences, particularly in light of the current circumstances in which we all find ourselves in. After all, if we do not look after ourselves, how can we look after our clients?”